The Federal Communications Commission has issued a statement indicating it intends to withdraw its preliminary approval for LightSquared’s satellite-assisted LTE network, saying that the technology’s interference with existing GPS devices “would not be permitted.” The FCC’s action marks a potentially-fatal setback for LightSquared, which has invested in the neighborhood of $3 billion to design and begin launch of its LTE service—and that includes putting a satellite into orbit. LightSquared hopes to offer LTE mobile broadband to as many as 260 million American people via terrestrial base stations connected by satellite uplinks.
“NTIA, the federal agency that coordinates spectrum uses for the military and other federal government entities, has now concluded that there is no practical way to mitigate potential interference at this time,” the FCC’s Tammy Sun wrote in a statement. “Consequently, the Commission will not lift the prohibition on LightSquared.”
In its own statement, LightSquared says it remains committed to finding a resolution for GPS interference issues, and says it “profoundly disagrees” with the NTIA and PNT’s recommendations and “flawed testing.”
“Despite LightSquared’s success in finding technical solutions and the acknowledgement by a senior government official that GPS receivers are specifically designed to rely on spectrum licensed to LightSquared, it is extremely disappointing that this recommendation was made today,” the company said in a statement.
Tests conducted in late 2011 by the NTA and the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Systems Engineer Forum (PNT) found that LightSquared’s LTE broadband service interfered with up to three quarters of GPS units it tested—including flight safety systems that warn pilots of approaching terrain. LightSquared decried the tests as rigged, saying they were conducted behind closed doors and using some equipment that was long-obsolete. LightSquared has proposed its own inexpensive solution to updating GPS receivers to avoid interference from LightSquared’s systems; however, the GPS industry has voiced strong resistance, noting there’s no practical way to install the technical workaround on the tens of millions of GPS devices already deployed to the military, aviation, corporations, and everyday consumers.
LightSquared, backed by hedge-fund billionaire Philip Falcone’s Harbinger Capital Partners, positioned itself as a wholesaler of LTE services, rather an an operator that would offer LTE directly to consumers. To that end, LightSquared has inked deals with more than 30 partners; the most significant is Sprint, which inked a $9 billion deal with LightSquared last year that gave the mobile operator options to up to half of LightSquared’s eventual network capacity. If LightSquared can’t secure regulatory approval to operate its network—and the odds just got a lot longer—Sprint’s ability to provide 4G LTE services to its mobile customers might be severely impaired. Sprint already lags behind Verizon Wireless and AT&T for bringing 4G LTE online; without LightSquared, the company will have to lean heavily on ClearWire and do everything it can to snap up terrestrial bandwidth. That might mean cutting some sort of deal with T-Mobile (although its very unlikely to be an acquisition). Sprint might also look to a deal with Dish Network, which is working on its own satellite-assisted LTE service, albeit on frequencies well-distanced from those used by GPS.
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